Tuesday, February 10, 2015

"Magicians, Muslims, and Metaphysicians": New Article and New Book of Letters

Patrick D. Bowen, 
"Magicians, Muslims, and Metaphysicians: The American Esoteric Avant-Garde in Missouri, 1880-1889," 
Theosophical History vol. XVII, no. 2 (2014): 48-70 
(available to order from the Theosophical History website)

My research into the history of conversion to Islam in the US has led me down a number of unexpected paths. I never thought, for instance, that while looking for evidence of whites and Latinos in the early years of the Moorish Science Temple of America I would stumble upon the figure of Abdul Hamid Suleiman and his "Caananites" Temple of 1923. I could not have imagined, furthermore, that publishing an article about AHS in 2011 would lead to me corresponding with dozens of Muslim and non-Muslim researchers from around the world, many of whom would give me great insights into the history of Islam in the West. These past 8 years of research have indeed been a great journey.

In late 2012, this journey took another unexpected but important turn. At that time, I was corresponding with a researcher from New York State who was strongly encouraging me to look deeper into the history of occultism in America and its connections with Muslims. He especially emphasized the 19th c. occult writer and leader Paschal Beverly Randolph and the organization that used his teachings, the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor (H.B. of L.). I had already done a superficial read of the main scholarly works on both, but this researcher's conviction convinced me that I should look deeper into the subject.

Timing is everything. It just so happened that at that time I was also trying to figure out ways to find new evidence related to the early years of Alexander Russell Webb, the famous white convert to Islam, who'd already been very ably researched by Brent Singleton and Umar F. Abd-Allah. When, at the suggestion of the New York researcher, I started going back over the books on Randolph and the H.B. of L., I realized something: In the 1880s, Alexander Webb was a member of the same St. Louis Theosophical Society lodge as was the American president of the H.B. of L., Thomas M. Johnson. Johnson was also, in fact, a leading American member of the Theosophical Society in the 1880s.

Desperate to find anything new for the book I was planning to write about early white American Muslims, I sought out any clue that might show a connection between Webb, on the one hand, and Johnson and the H.B. of L., on the other. Then I discovered the existence of the Thomas M. Johnson Library and Museum. The Johnson family has retained hundreds of letters written to their ancestor concerning philosophy and esotericism. In early 2013, they granted me permission, with the help of the Special Collections Department at Missouri State University, to examine and later publish many of these letters. Then, in March, I spent a week in Springfield working with the librarians and examining these rare documents--documents that were so filled with fascinating history that I was not particularly disappointed when I only found a single mention of Webb in all of the letters.

So much new information about the history of American esotericism and alternative religions was contained in these documents that I had to immediately start processing it all. My newest article, "Magicians, Muslims, and Metaphysicians: The American Esoteric Avant-Garde in Missouri, 1880-1889" Theosophical History vol. XVII, no. 2 (2014): 48-70 (available to order from the Theosophical History website) reflects my early summary of the importance of the letters. I wrote the initial draft of this article while still in Springfield, and as I have read and re-read the letters more thoroughly since that time, I have come to feel confident that this essay is a solid introduction to the letters and to the connections between Webb and early organized esotericism in America.

This article, however, is not the final product of this amazing research experience.

This spring (2015), many of the letters will be published in an edited and annotated form by Typhon Press under the title "Letters to the Sage: Selected Correspondence of Thomas Moore Johnson, Volume 1: The Esotericists." For help editing this volume, I was pleased to have the opportunity to work with K. Paul Johnson, the author of a number of important books on the history of the Theosophical Society, and the modern researcher most responsible for bringing to light important clues about Madame Blavatsky's possible connections with famous Muslims, including Jamal ad-Din Al-Afghani.

"Letters to the Sage" contains nearly 250 previously unpublished missives concerning the early history of the Theosophical Society and the H.B. of L. Numerous, never-before known details about these groups, their members, and their development will finally be available for researchers, the faithful, and the curious. I am confident that future studies of the history of these groups will find LTS invaluable.

Despite the focus of the letters in LTS being on these 2 groups, however, the information contained in them will also be invaluable for understanding the development of United States religion in general. We will show the many ways that the emergence of Webb's own Islamic movement out of the Theosophical/H.B. of L. milieu was neither a coincidence nor a particularly unique phenomenon. In fact, LTS will reveal how numerous new religious expressions, many of which would have enormous roles in the shaping of US religiosity, came directly out of the Theosophical/H.B. of L. matrix of the 1880s. Indeed, it will take years and many researchers before the full extent of the legacy of America's early esoteric community is fully understood. And even more fascinating, but complicating data will be added to the mix when Volume 2 of LTS--which will contain hundreds of pages of letters to Johnson from another important early Theosophist, Alexander Wilder--is released in 2017.

But that is not all. The revelations in the Johnson letters have led me to chase down many, many leads concerning the roots of Islam in America. Much has been discovered, and a great deal of it is especially significant and surprising. This all will be presented, contextualized, and analyzed in my forthcoming book "A History of Conversion to Islam in the United States, Volume 1: White American Muslims before 1975"  (Amazon.com)It is my hope that anyone interested in the history of Islam in America--even you are primarily interested in African American Muslims, immigrant Muslims, or Latino Muslims--will read this book, as it will contain historically important information about the early years of the development of US Islamic movements, particularly as they relate to the Theosophical/H.B. of L. community of the 1880s, and how the impact of these connections still reverberates in 2015. (Plus a lot more, of course.)

When I chose to investigate the history of conversion to Islam in America, I had very little idea of what I was in for. So far, as those who have been following my work know, it has already been quite an interesting research journey. With the finding of these letters, however, this interesting journey has become amazing.

UPDATE 10/4/15: We have had some delays, but the letters are still definitely forthcoming.

UPDATE 11/2/15: The book is now going to be released February 2016. See the new promo here.

UPDATE 3/11/16: The book is now available for purchase from Amazon

For excerpts from the book, click here


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Are you familiar with the writings of Madame H. P. Blavatsky?
    She wrote "The Secret Doctrines" and "Isis Unveiled"

    1. Yes-- Blavatsky and her writings were very important topics for these letters. "Isis Unveiled" was especially influential.